Now I know many of you are probably jingle-exhausted after months of a festive sounds dogging you every time you ventured out in public. But I can’t help bringing together two of my favourite things on this special day: the Beatles and holiday music. Only certified Beatlemaniacs could come up with something as kooky as this and make it work. Today’s bands fit the diagnosis and then some. Here’s what they do: they mash together a holiday standard with some classic from the Beatles catalogue. The point is meld the two as seamlessly as possible, typically maintaining the tune of the holiday song while putting it to a Beatles beat or adorning it with recognizable Beatles riffs. It’s easy to do but hard to do well, as our three fab yulesters musically demonstrate.
First up, The Butties from Syracuse, New York. Starting out in college in the 1980s they just kept getting together yearly, playing gigs and eventually recording some holiday tunes in a Beatles style. In 2005 they released an album of them entitled 12 Greatest Carols (the cover riffs on The Beatles 20 Greatest Hits). Our featured choice from the LP is their take on “Joy to the World” which incorporates “Please Please Me” in various ways. There’s the distinctive “Please Please Me” harmonica and rhythm guitar end-of-verse turnarounds. The vocal harmonies on this track are super and the harmonica runs are so Beatles but in other ways the synthesis doesn’t quite gel for me.
Number two on our docket is Danish Beatles cover band Rubber Band. Their 1994 album Xmas! The Beatmas also offers 12 Beatles-re-engineered Christmas songs. A lot of review attention at the time focused on the band’s reworking of “Last Christmas” to sound a bit like “Please Mister Postman.” The Wham!/Marvelettes mash-up didn’t grab me but there are other examples here where the synthesis works better. Like the creative combining of “Feliz Navidad” with “No Reply.” The latter adds some drama that the former sorely lacks. And then the decision to mix “Ticket to Ride” into “White Christmas was sheer brilliance. The distinctive guitar hook wraps around the tune like a warm blanket. The middle-eight break out to Lennon’s “Happy Xmas” was a nice touch too.
All this is well and Beatlesy good but you haven’t heard anything till you hear the masters of this particular arcane genre, The Fab Four. They’ve got the accents and vocal tics down, the guitar sounds are spot on, and their ability to seamlessly stitch holiday song and Beatles classic together is unparalleled. Just listen to how they lay an “I Saw Her Standing There” backbeat onto “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” It’s like they were made for each other. Or putting “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” together with “Help.” Once you hear it there’s a ’duh’ moment that immediately follows. And for Beatles geeks check out how they combine “Good King Wenceslas” with Help! album deep cut “Tell Me What You See.” Genius! I first enjoyed these tracks on the band’s 2002 10-song collection A Fab Four Christmas but eight more were added for a revamped 2012 re-release now entitled Hark!
Wrapping things up (pun intended), we turn to the actual Fabs themselves from their 1967 fanclub-only 45 release “Christmastime (Is Here Again).” Too bad they didn’t work this up into a fully proper song as there are some great melodic elements here.
Well there you have it, two great tastes that sound great together – traditional holiday tunes done Beatles-style. From everyone here at Poprock Record, here’s hoping you’ve had the fab-est ‘whatever-you’re-celebrating’ holiday season ever!
In between competing Canadian and American Thanksgivings is most of November, a month where nothing much really happens. What better time to shine a little light on some new singles? No time, my friends. Get ready to taste test twenty or so new tunes in between bites of leftover turkey.
There’s something very Bowie about Ward White. His delicate yet forceful delivery defies easy categorization. His new album, The Tender Age, is full of sophisticated tunes but I’m drawn to the more rootsy, almost pub rock “Don’t Let’s Die at the Stop Light.” The organ and lead guitar work are fabulous and the chorus takes a surprising melodic turn. The new Grip Weeds record Dig is a cover album tour-de-force. The band blast through an inspired collection of sixties psych rock classics and then some. But their treatment of The Byrds “Lady Friend” is epic, taking the song to new heights by amping the psych content and nailing the vocal arrangement (adding some Turtles’ ba ba ba’s to good effect). And don’t skimp on getting the deluxe double-album version because disc two has some real killers, like the wild cover of The Monkees “For Pete’s Sake” and the banjo-licious take on the Nightcrawlers’ “Little Black Egg.” Another band working the sixties side of the street pretty hard is The On and Onsand they ace that garage-y yet poppy rock and roll sound with guitars that practically leap from the speakers. The new album is Back for More and you will be, guaranteed. But as a taster, check out “Your Kind of World.” What a fab hooky guitar lead line opener! And the rest is a pretty winning Bryds-meets-Beatles “Rain” era single. The minute I spotted that Tommy Scifres had played with Aaron Lee Tasjan I had a feeling his record would be pretty cool. And it is. The LP is Last Legs, a lovely collection of melody central tuneage, like the mellifluous “Thought You Knew” with its spacey vocals and trippy guitar. Like some very early 1970s Steve Miller Band. But I’m liking “What’s at the Bottom of Your Heart” even more with its retro 1950s swing. How many bands can take two decades off from recording and come back like they’d just slipped out to the store for a pack of smokes? Clearly The Connells can. Steadman’s Wake is their new album and it is a fantastic mélange of Americana and Tom Petty poprock. The whole album is a keeper but I’m presently grooving on “Fading In (Hardly)” with its Billy Bragg song-framing and shiver-inducing, gut-punch of a chorus. Get those lighters ready.
There’s something old and something new about Sydney, Australia band The Hard Ons’ new album, I’m Sorry Sir, That Riff’s Been Taken. Going on 40 years as a musical outfit (with a few times outs) obviously the band is something old. But The Hard Ons 2021 have a brand new lead vocalist, former You Am I singer Tim Rogers, and pretty punchy poprock sound, apparent on the driving “Hold Tight.” Love the band name, love the album title. Boston’s Scrimshanders get labelled with tags like alt country but I don’t get it from listening to “SXMS,” featured on their latest long-player Songs That Never Were. Just check out that rough chord-slashing guitar work and those John Doe vocals. This is rock and roll baby. Ok, maybe tracks like “Restless Heart” have a bit of country in them, but, again, I hear more of the Jersey shore in those twin engine organ and guitar blasts. I totally loved Nashville band *repeat repeat’s 2019 album Glazed with its unique blend of contemporary and retro sounds. Since then they’ve been teasing us with a succession of tasty singles, practically a new album’s worth. The latest is “Trippin’ (I Know I Will)” and it is wonderfully otherworldly with hooky, winsome lead guitar work that frames a lovely little pop song. Chicago’s The Cut-Outs describe their sound as punk-powerpop-rock and roll. Ya, that about captures it, though not on every song. Take “Ordinary Man” from their latest collection Let’s Go! – it’s a late 1960s rocker all the way. Of course, there definitely a heavy dollop of poppy punk ambiance defining the album’s opening cut “Tuesday Night.” I love the manic clapping and the Dave Rave-like vocals. Washington D.C.’s The Buzz have got that spare 1979 guitar sound all over their most recent record Cut Loose! There are so many great songs here but overall I’m really grooving on “Stuck in the Cloud,” a bona fide should-be hit single. There are a load of subtle melodic change ups in this song, with the band regularly altering their attack and deftly layering interesting musical dynamics behind a glam era vocal.
Orlando Florida’s The BellTowers psych their jangle pretty thoroughly throughout Magnetic, both Reel One and Reel Two. The double EP is a whole lot of intensely sibilant guitar work. My recommendation is, start with “Erase Any Doubts.” The guitar is everywhere, hypnotically drawing you in, keeping you focused on it like a great montage sequence from any season one episode of The Monkees. Look I’m not saying it’s an Australia thing but I can’t help but hear a kind of punk rock Paul Kelly vibe embedded in Suburban Urchin’s “4000 Miles Away” from their Born in the Suburbs release. The cut charges along with such fist-waving intensity, you know this would be a dance hall stomper. Milan, Italy’s Radio Days just keep dropping exquisite singles. This time they draw from the British beat group era circa 1965 for the background sonic pallete. There’s an early Mersey feel to the guitar lead line kicking off “Walking Alone” but then the song branches out into a more timeless power pop sound. Buzzard Buzzard Buffalo are a mysterious band that leave a light footprint on the ole interweb. They hail from Manchester Tennessee but sound like they hang in that more famous version of the town. “Love Song for You” is a quirky, endearing bit of lofi pop. It’s a song that comes on in the background and before you know it you’re turning up the volume and hitting repeat. I’ve loved St. Paul Minnesota’s The Persian Leaps for a long time. I own two of their albums, an EP, and handful of singles. So how come I’ve never managed to write about them? Epic coverage fail! Well, let me make up for lost time – get the band’s newest release, Drone Etiquette: it’s great. I mean, check out how that banging guitar opener to “When This Gets Out” is cast against vocals that are so melodically refined, offset by some polite piano shots. Then for something different, there’s “The Company She Keeps” which has such a fab Andy Partridge/XTC chime.
I’ll admit I initially stopped at Växjö, Sweden musician Fredrik Solfors’s site because his band name was so intriguing:School Book Depository. And what’s not to like about a guy with a ‘Bob’ song on every album? Album number three is now out, Bob and the Eastern Beacon of Hope, collecting a host of drip pre-released singles and then some. I’m loving the gentle hooky charm of “Killer in the Mountains,” a carefully crafted bit of poprock portraiture. There are so many delightful details here, from the Owl City meets Good Old War vocals to a captivating musical arrangement. With “Lipstick Queens” Rocket Bureau bolt out of the singles gate with a track that sounds like a mix of some mad off-off-Broadway show and a new wave revival album. They claim to be Wisconsin’s ‘basement-rock and roll-one man-studio band’ but to my ears they are ready to take the stage. The song is from the album Middle Angst, and its got a lot more 1970s guitars and hooky tunes for you. For a while it seemed like the name Andy Boppwas everywhere. “Bopp’s a genius,” they’d say. “Bopp’s got a killer album,” proclaimed the reviews. Who is this guy, said I? Well after a stroll through his latest LP AB, I caught a bad case of ‘reviewer meets genius.’ Everything you’ve heard is true. Just test drive “Uncommon Disaster,” it’s a thing of sonic beauty. It kicks off with some 1966 Beatles rock guitar chords before resolving into a new wave era Kinks kind of number, with some outta-sight background vocals and a bridge to die for. Tacoma Washington’s Vanilla are curio poprock all stars, no genre can stump them. Their most recent collection Sideshow makes my case, with a bit of alt country, old timey pop, XTC-infused new wave and more. But “I Shall Be Re-released” is the standout here for me. Listen closely for those subtle vocal shifts in melody and harmonies, the almost buried retro lead guitar. It’s both familiar and different at the same time. As the world shut down these past few years music collective Orbis Max decided to get some socially distanced jamming going, the results emerging now on The Covid Collaborations 2020-21. There’s a rotating cavalcade of indie starts included here – Danny Wilkerson, Lanny Flowers, Ed Ryan, etc. – as well as great cuts just featuring the essential members of the band. Like “You Sold Tomorrow” with some super ‘woo hoos’ and pumping piano and a Harrisonian sheen to it all.
Track 21 in this monster collection of November tunes is something very Autumn, Chicago indie production legend Andy Reed’s lofi treatment of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” I’ve always had a soft spot for Simon’s acoustic-y soft rock numbers but Reed manages to strip the MOR production values out of the original to give the track some added indie allure. The heavenly background vocals are still there, even if the church organ isn’t. Altogether a fresh take on a deep cut classic.
While no alternative artists were forced to dance awkwardly through a background desert motif, here’s hoping that our November singles mediation has spawned some listening pleasure. Click those hyper-linked artist names to signal yes.